This post is to share the mini-critique and writing advice from leading UK Literary Consultancy, Cornerstones, in relation to Martin Hyde’s ebook, Traum. Martin won our first VoteForMyeBook.com competition in August. Here’s the feedback and response from Cornerstones and Martin.
VoteForMyeBook August 2012 Competition Winner
“This is a chilling opening with lots of potential to scare and shock the reader. It also sets up plenty of questions (and tension, as a result): where are we; who is Zaria ; and what is this secret tragedy that’s – literally – haunting her? With the dreamlike, surreal setting, there’s the suggestion that this is all going on inside Zaria’s mind, but her visceral response shows that this is no less emotionally affecting for her than if it was ‘real’, so the reader should be drawn in despite the fact that this is a dream/vision (a device which can often be distancing, particularly in the early stages of a novel, before we’ve had the chance to get to know the characters).
Nevertheless, there are a few ways in which this opening could pack a greater punch. With horror and thrillers, there’s often a temptation to overwrite, using thick layers of figurative language to evoke a strong emotional response in the reader. The danger is that this can lead to a sense of melodrama and even cliché, which can undercut the tone you’re aiming for. Ideally, the subject matter should speak for itself, without embellishment; and simplicity often works better if the material is this stark and shocking.
So, for instance, look at the first sentence:
The gentle sobbing of a distressed child pulled Zaria from a light sleep.
Here we have three adjectives, at least two of which could be pruned out. If the child is sobbing then it’s clearly distressed, and gentle feels implicit within the context. The verb – pulled – is strong enough to show us the effect of the sobbing on Zaria, so why not let it do the work?
The sound of sobbing pulled Zaria from her sleep.
The first couple of paragraphs also contain a number of clichés – sinking feeling, pitch black and beady eyes. It’s the novelist’s job to allow the reader to see familiar images in new, striking ways – this is what engages our senses and emotions at gut level – and the problem with clichés is that the reader’s eye tends to skim over them without revealing anything new or fresh. So, try to describe these things in a way which shows us qualities we may not have noticed before, and aim to show Zaria’s sinking feeling instead. In fact, this already happens with the physical sensations she experiences, so it’s just a question of sharpening this up.
It’s important to aim for absolute precision and clarity in your protagonist’s actions and thoughts, and in any description you include. The first paragraph feels a bit cloudy with both sinking feeling and stomach dropped (surely the same physical sensation?) then she winces and winks (perhaps blink would be more apposite?) sourly, which is quite hard to visualize. It’s also hard to picture her swinging her legs out of bed whilst in a foetal body position (incidentally the ‘body’ here is implicit in ‘foetal’) so perhaps ‘she uncurled and swung her legs out of bed’ might work better. Then we have blue rays of light beaming – a verb which is more usually associated with cheery sunshine than this kind of haunting light. Perhaps creeping orslipping might work well. Finally, the description of the crow feels slightly convoluted: Another shadow moved in front of the first, blocking parts of it with the fluttering shadow of a crow. Overall, here, the various images risk competing with each other, rather than building up a cohesive, clear picture.
In the editing process it’s important to continually look for ways to pare back writing and show rather than tell as much as possible. This is a complex concept but it basically means using the characters’ actions, thoughts, and interactions to tell the story rather than interpreting them on the reader’s behalf; this gives the reader the sensation of being very involved with the story’s imaginative process.
Overuse of adverbs is often a sign of telling, since they tend to be used as a kind of emotional short-hand, summarizing feelings rather than letting us experience them fully. In the second paragraph we have neatly, carefully, slowly and intensely. To help prune these out, aim to find a strong verb that can replace a weak verb plus adverb construction. For example, watched the room carefully with its beady eyes could be replaced by something like peered at Zaria with glittering eyes.
In the same vein, aim to avoid unintentional repetition which can jar the reader’s ear and bump them out of the story. Here, amongst others, we have repetitions of eyes and watching, and the effect of the repetition is to draw the reader’s attention to the clichéd beady eyes and to the weak verb watching, discussed above.
The concept of showing not telling applies particularly to characters’ emotions and reactions. So look for places here where we are told Zaria’s feelings, and find ways to dramatise them instead. We have dumbfounded awe, for instance, and bewitched and staring in drastic disbelief. The latter doesn’t quite work, since disbelief can’t be drastic – it’s not really an adjective that can be applied to an emotion. But later, we see Zaria’s emotions for ourselves, without having them spelt out:
Zaria’s eyes closed passionately, the pain of memories leaking into her soul, melting it. A tear slipped from her eyelid and rolled down her face.
Here, Zaria closing her eyes, and the single tear, shows us how she’s feeling – trying and failing to suppress her grief. Pruning the sentence back by removing any overwriting, as highlighted above, could make it even stronger.
Finally – and this comes back to the point about clarity – ensure that the action that’s being described is always easy for the reader to visualize. There are some striking descriptions here but, perhaps because it is a dream/vision sequence, they can be hard to grasp and picture. How can Zaria see all the shadow-play in just the strip of light under the door, for instance? What does it mean that the door smashes a way behind Zaria? And how does the crow’s head fall through the floor, which previously appeared to be a solid, black and white chessboard?
With any fantasy you need to work particularly hard to build a consistent, convincing world, but this is particularly the case in a dream-like scene where the reader is going to be automatically questioning the ‘reality’ of events, and holding themselves at one remove as a result. The more you can root them firmly in the world you’ve created, the fewer questions they will have and the more likely they will be to surrender their imaginations to you and immerse themselves totally in your story.
Good luck with Traum and remember that with self-publishing easier and more accessible than it has ever been before, rigorous editing is the best way to ensure your work stands out.”
Martin fed back in response to his mini-critique:
“Yes I’d be very happy for other readers to see the criticism. It’s certainly interesting to see how someone that isn’t in your head perceives things that you perhaps don’t second guess because it makes sense to you, and that’s what makes a great writer – someone that can really convey the imagery and feeling that they feel to an audience. This just further shows the importance of having work thoroughly edited by professionals, although there are definitely considerations I have missed and will take on board. Lastly I’d like to thank you guys at iWriteReadRate.com for the great opportunity.”
Check out the October shortlist and cast your votes on our competition micro-site here: VoteForMyeBook.com
An idea: you could follow this months shortlisted writers and DM them on your iStream once you’ve voted for them. Remember, your ebook could be shortlisted next month.
Find out more about Cornerstones.